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Today I saw an instance of a proper noun (Google) being used as a verb in the following question on EL&U:

I read an article recently where the author used "substract" instead of "subtract". I'm more familiar with the latter word but after doing a bit of googling, it seems that both words are being used, …

This reminds me a bit of the story made by Mitt Romney’s campaign in March. He made a slip of tongue by likening the shift of his boss’s political tactics to an "Etch A Sketch."

“Despite Mitt Romney's big win in Illinois, his campaign is on the defensive after one of his senior advisers told CNN: "I think ... It's almost like an Etch A Sketch - you can kind of shake it up and we start all over again”. – NPR Mar 21, 2012

I saw the case of Blackberry being used as a verb too.

Can I use “Etch A Sketch” as a verb to mean ‘flip flop’ in such a way as “My boss always etches a sketch his words”? Is it understood by many or few Americans?

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I think you found your answer already, but I want to mention that the key point about the Etch-a-Sketch is the ability to quickly erase a drawing by shaking the device. "Etching a Sketch" calls to mind the device (and the utterance), but "etching" is the opposite of the activity you are hoping to evoke. –  horatio Jul 25 '12 at 21:20

5 Answers 5

I think the term you're looking for is weathervane or windsock, although it isn't a verb. Weathervanes and windsocks always face in the direction the wind blows, and will change positions quite often. The "wind" here symbolizes pressure from outside forces, or the internal whims of the person in question.

My boss said that I probably won't have to work this weekend, but he/she is such a windsock that he/she may change his/her mind three more times before Friday.

Another term often used in political contexts is flip-flopper. It refers to a person who suddenly changes positions when subject to political pressure.

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In Japanese, we call an opportunist and timesaver “Kazamidori 風見鶏” - a weathercock. I don’t know whether you say ‘weathercock’ instead of weathervane and windsock. –  Yoichi Oishi Jul 27 '12 at 22:51
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No, weathercock is not usually used, as the word cock is not typically used in reference to roosters. –  Zoot Jul 30 '12 at 12:50

I'm a Brit and also know what Etch-a-Sketch is but I would never have guessed what to 'Etch-a-Sketch' might mean.

I note that, in the quote from Romney's advisor, he added an clarification immediately. Without that I think it would have been meaningless.

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The second sentence is a key point. Some analogies are obvious, or are so frequently used that they have a standard meaning. But many require explanation to make sense. Like -- just to make up something dumb -- if you said, "Bob is like a potato chip", and left it at that, no one would have any idea what you meant. He's salty? He breaks easily? He's a side to the main show? ... ? The Etch-a-Sketch quote works because the speaker explained it, so it brought up a vibrant image while being clear. Without the explanation, it would be at best ambiguous. –  Jay Jul 25 '12 at 14:26

Can I use “Etch A Sketch” as a verb to mean ‘flip flop’ in such a way as “My boss always etches a sketch his words”? Is it understood by many or few Americans?

No, not really. Besides, you would say that he 'etch-a-sketches' his words.

The prominent feature of an Etch A Sketch is that you can clear the drawing you've made by literally shaking the thing.

To flip-flop is to go back and forth between two stances, neither one of which really ever disappears. If your boss completely denies having said something, you could probably use it and be understood in context.

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What about “My boss Etch-a-Sketches everything what he said yesterday,” in the meaning the boss cancels (or turns over) all his promises committed to his subordinate? –  Yoichi Oishi Jul 25 '12 at 4:22
    
@YoichiOishi Yes, that would be an excellent use of this expression. Change "what" to "that" though. –  user16269 Jul 25 '12 at 8:20

"Etch a Sketch" is an American toy (from the 1960s), where you can "sketch" a picture by moving some controls that "paint" a picture on a screen attached to a box.

You can clear the screen by shaking up the box, thereby shaking "loose" the material that you sketch. It represents a "do over."

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You have it backwards -- the drawing tip removes powder from the faceplate. The image is erased by putting a layer of powder back onto the faceplate. See Mechanics section of wikipedia article. –  jwpat7 Jul 25 '12 at 4:05

Most Americans know what an Etch-a-Sketch is, but I think very few would interpret the saying:

My boss always Etch-a-Sketches his words.

to mean that he changes his mind a lot. In fact, if I heard that saying, and had to venture a guess, I might think it means that he's not very eloquent. (It's easy to draw straight lines with an Etch-a-Sketch, but fluid curves are very difficult, which makes it very difficult to spell out even basic words.)

You could still use the toy as an analogy to flip-flopping, though – you'd just have to be more specific:

My boss changes his position as easily as an Etch-a-Sketch gets erased.

Such a sentence might even carry the connotation that he changes his mind under pressure (i.e., when he is shaken).

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